by Jim Reapsome
0ne cannot accuse the apostle Paul of being unclear about the differences between a preconversion and postconversion life style. When he described the behavior of “the old man,” he did not pussyfoot.
0ne cannot accuse the apostle Paul of being unclear about the differences between a preconversion and postconversion life style. When he described the behavior of "the old man," he did not pussyfoot. He specifically identified the most horrid of sins, as well as those that are still socially acceptable. Likewise, the apostle specifically named a host of qualities that formed the character of "the new man" in Christ. (cf. Eph. 4:24-32; Col. 3:9-14).
But one clear identifying mark of "the new man’s" life-his full acceptance of all fellow believers, regardless of social, ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural differenceshas stirred up considerable debate, especially among missionaries who accept the truth but wonder about its application where these differences raise formidable obstacles to evangelization and church planting. The ultimate goal is not disputed. What is debated is whether or not the implementation of this clear apostolic goal should be temporarily set aside for the sake of a supposedly faster rate of conversion among those who hold rather fiercely to these distinctive social, ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural identification marks in their tribes, castes, ghettos, villages and urban high rises. The debate is whether or not desired conversion (agreed upon by all as a worthy goal) preempts the apostolic teaching and practice about the abolition of human separatism, discrimination, and prejudice.
Do we or do we not tell new converts to break down the old barriers and break out of the old castes and ghettos right away? Some say no, because that would put an unnecessary precondition or roadblock in the way of the conversion of others. Better to keep new converts in their old social and ethnic units, prejudiced as they are, for the sake of winning others. In support for this view is the fact that the apostle Paul did not overtly demand the abolition of slavery and other social injustices.
On the other side, however, we find those who say that Paul was quite blunt about the necessity of breaking down social, religious, economic and ethnic barriers. They cite Ephesians 2:11-22 and Colossians 3:11 to prove that Paul knew all about the most vicious social, religious, national, and religious hatred and prejudice, and that for him one’s willingness to rid oneself of these hatreds was a sure sign of genuine conversion. For example, if you teach a new convert not to steal, lie, and kill, you also tell him to get rid of the old animosities toward a person of another color, religion tribe, caste, and nationality. Equally tough, Paul specified that converted slaves and masters must radically change how they feel toward and treat each other.
In short, "the new man" who now possesses a divine nature and knowledge, becomes part of a socially identifiable body that simply puts Jesus Christ and the common life in him ahead of all human, earthly, sinful, "old man" divisions and social cliques. Barbarians and Scythianshated and feared by decent people-were in the family. Christ superimposed a new social reality over the old explosive hatreds.
As one weighs both sides of the debate, it appears that pragmatics tends to obscure the apostolic de mand for hauling down ethnic, racial, religious, and social barriers. Pragmatics for a worthy goal indeedmore conversions to Christ. This practice, it seems, is risky. Must we really accept the social status quo to see more people saved? I think not.
For one thing, the apostle Paul did not specifically say SO. Rather, doing away with these social and cultural divisions is part and parcel of the "new man," and consequently of his new identity in God’s family. Obviously, the converted Scythian was still a Scythian, with all his unique characteristics, but he was told to live as though being a Scythian was not the big thing it used to be. He was to open his heart and life to all the other ethnics and minorities. That was dangerous. Maybe dating a non-Scythian was risky. Maybe his parents would disown him. Maybe angry relatives would poison him. Muslims have done this to defectors. Maybe he would lose his job. And maybe his conversion would turn off other Scythians. So be it. We cannot for the sake of possibly reaching more Scythians refuse to apply the apostolic teaching.
Pragmatics says winning more people is the priority. However, Paul’s zeal for winning people to Christ,did not preclude his demand that those converts live out "the new man," with all that implies, regardless of the consequences. Paul was as eager as anyone to win more people to Christ, but in the multi-ethnic cities where he and others started churches he wanted those churches to be multiethnic, so they could demonstrate Christ’s transforming power to a hate-filled, ghetto-minded, prejudicial society. In showing that power-the power that would make a Scythian love a Jew or a Greek, the power to make slaves love their masters-pagan people would see the gospel. They would see Jesus "is all and in all." It would not be too far amiss to suggest, even on the basis of pragmatics, that more people are won to Christ by converts breaking down ethnic, social, national, religious, and racial barriers than by keeping those distinctives intact. Who knows? To cite one example from the recent experience of Southern Baptists in Bangalore, India: a "conglomerate" church doubled its membership; strictly mono-ethnic churches in the city have not grown as much as those that are not purely mono-ethnic.
We must resist the temptation to justify church and mission tactics on the basis of what appears to bring in the most people. We must rather think of the priority of teaching and requiring the total "new man." While we must confess that new converts (and old converts for that matter) do indeed stumble, we cannot deemphasize or make less important the experience of God’s new creation in a new family that transcends the old family. By trusting in Christ, the convert enters a new social unit-bearing God’s own image-and thereby explodes in a very disrupting way the old social unit.
If that gets in the way of someone else’s conversion, or even drives family, friends, and neighbors away, that is the price of radical obedience. The Lord Jesus Christ deliberately put ridiculously high barriers in the way of following him. He drove away people by praising and socializing with Samaritans. He made it tough on an inquirer by reminding her she was a Gentile dog. Hardly the way to win converts. It seems clear that smashing racial, religious, ethnic, and tribal pride, prejudice, and hatred, while it may seem to block winning more converts, is instead the way to build new Christian social communities (that is, local churches of new converts) in hostile pagan ethnic and caste hotbeds. The apostle Paul saw "the new man" in a new social reality as the very visible representation of God’s image in society (Col. 3:10, 11). That kind of dynamic change manifests God’s righteousness in the world, which, after all, is the ultimate goal of proclaiming the gospel all over the world (Rom. 1:16, 17).
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